Thursday, April 26, 2007

Of catalysis and stranger reactions

Browsing the scifiction archive, was delighted to find to find this piece by Michael Swanwick, which of course reminded me instantly of Primo Levi's Periodic Table. The wikipedia entry refers to all 21 entries as "short stories", but from what I can remember, the majority were memoirs.

From my undependable memory - Hydrogen and Helium were childhood memoirs, hydrogen with the classic eyebrow-erasing chemistry experiment
either Cerium or Chromium a memoir of a desperate concentration camp existence
I have a distinct memory of one being about ammonia or ammonium, which of course can't be right, but it was about a chemical factory, so it probably is "Sulphur"
Either Lead or Iron, is a genuine tale - the life of a middle aged smith or quarryman

but all of them brilliant. It comes as no surprise that the book won this

And even the memory of Levi's books stirs as it did on reading, memories of the more weird-historical paragraphs that seep into chemistry textbooks - images of Sulphur vapour condensing, the rejected slag of an iron extraction, the long long pathways of sulphuric acid production - the alchemical dirt under the fingernails of modern chemistry.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007



tea, rhymes with gold,
or better still,
sunlight breaking through
the trees,

the coldness of stone
with the first touch
of a still pool
of water.

There's music
in sea-waves waking
at dawn,

in watching a man walk
watching a woman walk
or a child run
across a street.

I could paint you
a whole story
using only

the peach soft touch
of a first kiss

the hunger of
the endless empty hours
of midnight

the roll of
cool water down
a parched throat

the touch and
embrace of skin
warm as honey

and with the burning
lonely shame
of tears.

When I speak,
even in my silence.

The best poems
are written in silence,
to the rhythm
of a beating heart.

*written for/inspired by a friend's sign language workshop

Monday, April 16, 2007

Changing Planes

Judging a book by its foreword isn't as big as a sin as judging it by its cover, but it does come close.

I ignored Ursula Leguin's Changing Planes on bookshelves for quite a while before stumbling onto a library copy.
I had somehow gained an initial impression that the whole book was about air travel, but it isn't at all (well except for one part which is delightful)
What it actually is, is a woven-together set of short tales, each one describing a society on another "plane" that is just a little bit different from ours.

The first one - Porridge on Islac - is a gently dystopic view of genetic engineering gone horribly wrong.

My personal favourites are the two language ones (not least because I'm struggling at the moment with a language story myself):
The Silence of the Asonu - a few words on a society whose individuals literally never say a word and
The Nna Mmoy Language - a tale of a people whose mono-syllabary language is completely (and hence unintelligibly) contextual.

The third-last tale - The Flyers of Gy - whose bootlegged copy I'd read a couple of years ago seems appropriate for an end to a book about planes and planes. It describes a society of bird-like people, some of whom can actually fly, though for a change, not all of them want to. Its a completely different take of course from the normal fantastic/exultory approach to this (for a brilliant execution read Lisa Tuttle's Windhaven)

And browsing the Wikipedia entry for the book I stumble onto a new word - ethnography
Ethnographic it is then - 15 planes in 200 pages - not a bad deal for an evening's virtual travelling.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Take a listen

Asimov's Nightfall read out as a podcast

Monday, April 02, 2007

A stroll around Lankhmar

being yet another pointless book reaction....

Ahhh the sweet self-indulgence of escapist reading.
I'd been holding off reading Fritz Leiber's First Book of Lankhmar like a bag of sweets for so long.
So it was a sweet weekend troddling along with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Leiber coined the term "sword & sorcery" to describe his stories, and there really isn't a better phrase. The stories describe the adventures fantastic, swash-buckling and occasionally comic of Fafhrd a huge Conan-ish barbarian and the diminutive Gray Mouser. There are few "heroes" staining these pages, as the pair battle demons, thieves, wolves four-legged and two-legged in the search for, for the most part, the usual exotic treasures - jewelled skulls, caches of rubies. Enchantment blows across the landscape often, with the occasional whiff of bitter revenge.

The stories beg comparison, with Robert E. Howard, but we will leave that for another post (and when I've actually finished the book, not too much sweet after all all at once)

inane observation -
It took me a couple of stories to guess that the constantly fog ridden and marsh approaching Lankhmar, with its deadly ancient streets smell probably a lot of New York.
Leiber's opening story has a troupe of travelling actors, something he probably knew quite a bit about being the child of two Shakespearean actors.
Those two things fix for me I think correctly how that old maxim should really read - its not "write what you know", it really should be "write and you'll probably end up writing what you know"

inane observation 2 -
the comforting thought, that even after these 600 pages, there does exist (on some bookshelf somewhere waiting for me) a second book of Lankhmar
which of course is like that most important of Sunday dishes - the second dessert